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Firms may now need to prove health claims

Firms may now need to prove health claims

New Delhi: Food and beverage companies that plug their products by touting their health benefits will be asked to substantiate the claims with scientific data under guidelines being prepared by the government.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an arm of the ministry of health and family welfare, is drafting the guidelines to check the veracity of claims made by companies in their advertisements.

“We are in the process of laying down a protocol that anybody making any claim in its advertisements will have to back it up with science and study," said P.I. Suvrathan, head of the FSSAI, in an interview. “There are so many ads on TV and other media related to children, ads of products such as salt, sugar and trans-fats which have a direct impact on health of people, that go unregulated."

Any company found guilty of airing or publishing misleading advertisements would be ordered to modify or pull the ads, with the backing of the government agency adding teeth to existing self regulations.

It is common for food and beverage companies to plug their products, especially those targeted at children, as nutritional and health enhancing to attract consumers and boost sales. Such products range from chewing gum and fruit juices to cooking oil.

Last year, a legal battle broke out between the two multinationals—GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare India Ltd (GSK) and Heinz India Ltd—over their advertisements targeting each other. The case is still pending in court.

GSK, which owns Horlicks, the malted milk hot drink brand, questioned Heinz India’s advertisements that claimed that its product, Complan, was priced above competitors because it contained higher nutritional value.

Heinz had put out the advertisement in response to an earlier Horlicks commercial claiming it had more nutritional content.

“Many companies come out with exaggerated claims," said Suvarthan, who went on to list examples. “For example if you eat one brand of salt, your bones will become very strong, or some other brand of oil, you will never have heart problems."

The FSSAI was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and tasked with laying down scientific standards for food and beverages, and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import to ensure they are safe for human consumption.

The agency has already begun talks with advertising agencies, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory ad industry body that deals with complaints against false and misleading advertisements, as well as not-for-profit organization and academicians.

“We have asked the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry to develop a draft of self-regulatory guidelines in association with other stakeholders. Within a month or two, a draft is expected to be ready," Suvrathan said. The federation, known as Ficci, is a business lobby group.

ASCI last year rolled out a set of self-regulatory guidelines for advertising products targeted at children below 13 years of age. Ads should not mislead consumers into believing that the product being plugged will result directly in “personal changes in intelligence, physical ability or exceptional recognition", according to one guideline, which said such claims should be supported with scientific evidence.

Another guideline said advertisements should not show excessive consumption of foods and beverages.

The FSSAI is of the view that more need to be done. “An efficient mechanism has to be in place to support any sort of claims, which is currently not there," said Suvrathan.

According to ASCI, the government initiative will have an impact across media platforms.

“Currently, we have backing from the ministry of information and broadcasting if any company does not abide by the decision of ASCI in case of television advertising. With the partnership of FSSAI, we will have backing from the government in case of other media also," said Alan Collaco.

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